This week it’s a pleasure to bring you an interview with A. J. (Andrea) Ashworth, short story writer and wordsmith extraordinaire. I first met Andrea when she came on an Arvon course at Lumb Bank in 2010, which I was hosting, and warmed to her because she said lots of nice things about the food (always guaranteed to get you into my good books!). It’s been great to get to know her better, and follow her career. Since that week at Lumb Bank, Andrea has won Salt Publishing’s Scott Prize for her first collection Somewhere Else, or Even Here which was published by Salt in November 2011. She was shortlisted for the 2012 Edge Hill Prize and longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Here she tells us why she’s passionate about astronomy, the short story form and why she likes nosing into other people’s houses….
Andrea is offering a free copy of Somewhere Else, or Even Here to one reader who leaves a comment at the end of the post. We’ll be randomly selecting a winner on Friday, 28 September.
Tell us about the day job and how you juggle writing with other work.
The day job also involves words – I’m an in-house editor. I therefore occasionally edit books (happily, these are sometimes books on creative writing) and other publications so I never really escape the written word. I also carry out quite a bit of quality-checking on work carried out by freelance editors. Because I work more or less full-time, it can be a bit of a struggle to find the energy to write but if I’m not working on a piece of writing then I don’t feel quite right.
Where do you like to write best?
At the moment I write in a spare bedroom at the top of the house. It has a nice view of the sky so I like to distract myself regularly by staring out at clouds or rain. I haven’t done it much but I also quite like sitting near the blazing woodburner at my parents’ house – it’s good for those like me who like to slowly roast while they write.
Who is your most significant influence (literary or otherwise)?
There are people whose work I love, but it’s hard to say if they influence my own writing. I love Raymond Carver for instance, and Tobias Wolff – two great short story writers – but I could only ever hope to write a tenth as well as them. I also love Woody Allen and some of his films have made a huge impression on me: Crimes and Misdemeanors, Annie Hall, Another Woman, Manhattan, Husbands and Wives – brilliant and memorable. When I first saw ‘Hannah and her Sisters’ I felt inspired and changed – as if the world had opened up to me in a way it hadn’t before.
Name your favourite Penguin literary mug (inspired by the Penguin mugs you can find in Arvon writing houses! – ed)
I only have one Penguin mug at the moment – ‘Jane Eyre’ – but I feel as if I haven’t found my perfect one yet. I’ll keep searching…
Favourite time off activity?
I’m pretty boring so I like films and the theatre. I also like just going for little walks around the streets – looking at buildings and houses and wondering what’s going on inside or what’s happening in the lives of the people who live or work there.
What’s the best thing about being a writer? And the worst?
The best thing about being a writer is creating something from nothing – constructing sentences and paragraphs where none existed before. What could be better than that? The worst can be trying to stay positive when the writing isn’t going so well.
One of the brilliant things about your stories is the range you encompass – in terms of settings, characters and choice of narrative. How intentional is this? And what’s your process for gathering ideas?
It’s not intentional at all. I just follow whichever idea appeals to me, in whichever voice it comes in. Sometimes I’ll be thinking about starting a new story and the first line just drops into my head, seemingly from nowhere. Other times I’ve been inspired by museums or galleries – my story ‘The Future Husband’ is loosely based in the museum in Blackburn, where I come from; a painting of a coconut shy in an exhibition somewhere was the starting point for my story ‘Coconut Shy’. So sometimes there can be a very obvious external stimulus, other times there’s nothing very obvious at all.
I know you’re really interested in astronomy. Can you say why, and how it influences your writing?
I love astronomy but I’m not sure where the interest comes from, except from perhaps seeing The Sky at Night on television when I was younger. I find it a hugely fascinating subject and such a rich well of ideas for a writer to draw from. I’ve learned quite a bit just from listening to podcasts and watching programmes on television, although I’m afraid I don’t have the maths or physics brain to back it up. I think using astronomy in my work enables me to add an additional layer of meaning to whatever I’m writing – hopefully adding to the depth of a story. That’s what I hope anyway.
Tell us about your relationship with the short story form.
I love the short story and how precise and concentrated it is. I like having to work to make sense of something and the short story is very much like this for me. They’re not always an easy read but they are a rewarding read. I remember reading Susan Hill’s ‘A Bit of Singing and Dancing’ at college for my A-levels and loved it – I loved the depth that could be achieved in just a few short pages. Then I was introduced to Raymond Carver and fell in love with the form completely.
What are you working on just now?
I’m writing more short stories and also starting work on a novel.
Where would you like to be in five years’ time? And in ten years?
It’s really hard to imagine myself in the future so I’ll cop out by saying that I definitely hope I’m still writing, enjoying it and being published.
If you had one piece of advice to give to your fifteen year old self, what would it be?
Stop worrying, live your life and keep dreaming.